The World’s Deadliest Distinction:  Why aren’t the oldest living people getting any older?

Last month, a 114-year-old former schoolteacher from Georgia named Besse Cooper became the world’s oldest living person. Her predecessor, Brazil’s Maria Gomes Valentim, was 114 when she died. So was the oldest living person before her, and the one before her. In fact, eight of the last nine “world’s oldest” titleholders were 114 when they achieved the distinction. Here’s the morbid part: All but two were still 114 when they passed it on. Those two? They died at 115.

The celebration surrounding Cooper when she assumed the title, then, might as well have been accompanied by condolences. If historical trends hold, she will likely be dead within a year.

It’s no surprise that it’s hard to stay the “world’s oldest” for very long. These people are, after all, really old. What’s surprising is just how consistent the numbers have been. Just seven people whose ages could be fully verified by the Gerontology Research Group have ever made it past 115. Only two of those seven lived to see the 21st century. The longest-living person ever, a French woman named Jeanne Calment, died at age 122 in August 1997; no one since 2000 has come within five years of matching her longevity.

The inventor Ray Kurzweil, famous for bold predictions that occasionally come true, estimated in 2005 that, within 20 years, advances in medical technology would enable humans to extend their lifespans indefinitely. With six years gone and 14 to go, his prophecy doesn’t seem that much closer to coming true. What happened to modern medicine giving us longer lives? Why aren’t we getting any older?

We are living longer—at least, some of us are. Life expectancies in most countries not ravaged by AIDS have been rising gradually for decades, and the average American today can expect to live 79 years—four years longer than the average in 1990. In many developed countries, the superold are among the fastest-growing demographics. (There is evidence that this progress may be grinding to a halt among some demographics, however.) But raising the upper bounds of the human lifespan is turning out to be trickier than increasing the average person’s life expectancy. This may be a case where, as with flying cars, a popular vision of technological progress runs afoul of reality’s constraints.  Read Article

By Will Oremus
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